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Scotland says nay to the big bad wolf

Bold reintroduction plan generates huff and puff

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A study released today by the Royal Society proposes the reintroduction of wolves into the Scottish Highlands - 240 years after they were hunted to extinction.

According to The Guardian, the report concludes that "allowing packs of wolves to patrol the Highlands would solve an emerging ecological crisis over deer numbers" while helping to "rejuvenate the Highlands, recreating a chain of rich native forests over its hills and glens".

Deer numbers in the Highlands stand at an estimated 500,000, and in some areas are close to the land's "carrying capacity", the study's authors claim. While hunting and culling do little to control the population, 500 hungry wolves - at a density of 25 wolves per 1,000 sq km territory - would reduce their numbers by three quarters "within 50 or 60 years".

The lupine release plan would, the scientists admit, be "deeply unpopular with farmers and rural pet owners", and might not go down too well with ramblers. While the former could be compensated for any losses to wolf attack, the latter would need to be convinced that they weren't going to become a hearty lunch for the wolf pack.

Alan Watson Featherstone, boss of charity Trees for Life, which is "planning to plant 100,000 native trees this year as part of its programme to rebuild the ancient Caledonian Forest", and heartily supports the wolf plan, admitted: "The wolf probably has the worst public image of any large animal on the planet, fed by children's fairy tale stories like the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, which is exacerbated by Hollywood movies about werewolves. They have a very, very bad PR problem. People think they're a real threat, but that's just not true."

Government agencies have proved a rather more concrete obstacle to the scheme. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has rejected it, preferring to focus on its sea eagle and beaver rehabilitation strategies.

SNH's director of science, Professor Colin Galbraith, said of the study: "It's a bit theoretical, but it's quite well done in terms of the science."

He insisted, however, that the "central issue of proving that a reintroduction was 'socially acceptable' was actually essential, both legally and practically". The World Conservation Union's guidelines for reintroducing species specify that "if an animal was once hunted to extinction by humans, it would be unacceptable to reintroduce that animal where it would again be targeted by man".

Galbraith noted: "That's very, very important. This is where the concept of reintroducing wolves to Scotland probably falls down."

Regarding the deer issue, Professor John Milne, chairman of Scotland's deer commission, dismissed several of the study's main assumptions as "flawed". He said there was no consensus that deer numbers were too high, and added that deer-stalking - apparently described by the report as "trophy-hunting" - actually injected £105m into the rural economy while creating around 2,500 "full-time equivalent" jobs.

The crux of the matter, though, lies with the issue of sheep. The Royal Society admits that "80 per cent of sheep deaths in the Highlands of Spain are the result of wolves". There are estimated to be several thousand wolves in Spain, the majority in the north of Castilla y Leon and rural human depopulation has encouraged a gradual spread of the species - to the growing alarm of livestock farmers.

The Royal Society researchers admit: "If, as it seems probable, wolf predation on sheep in Scotland would be at a similar level, it would reduce flock sizes." ®

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